Banged-up Cats find comfort in Marquette

Robert Eccles

Jammed fingers. Sprained knees. Shoulder pains. Back spasms.

All these injuries might plague a common person, but a wrestler is expected to endure those ailments and still compete at a high level. Northwestern freshman Ryan Cumbee, for instance, said he would have surgery at the end of the season, but he’s playing through the pain for now.

With such a long schedule – and with only two weekends left before the major year-end tournaments – NU’s wrestlers thrive on excitement and energy alone.

“This is the tournament time – you’ve got the adrenaline right now,” NU coach Tim Cysewski said. “You have to work through the tough times and the injuries. Every minute of practice has to be precious.”

The Wildcats (3-10-1, 0-5 Big Ten) embark on their final roadtrip of the regular season looking to finish a long, grueling, injury-filled season on a positive note. The Cats wrestle Marquette (1-10) on Friday and No. 22 Indiana (13-4, 1-3) on Sunday.

To say Marquette has hit a rough stretch would be an understatement. In their last five matches, the Golden Eagles have lost to No. 9 Ohio State, No. 23 Purdue, No. 3 Michigan, Wyoming and No. 18 Northern Iowa.

By a combined score of 231-10.

In the past, NU has had its way with Marquette, and Friday should be no exception. The Golden Eagles will forfeit two weight classes: 133 pounds and heavyweight.

“They have some good individuals, and if you take them for granted, they’ll beat you,” Cysewski said. “We have to just go up there and take care of business.”

The Cats will end up in Bloomington, Ind., on Sunday as they try for an upset and their first conference win.

NU is coming off its best Big Ten performance this year, against No. 21 Penn State. Four NU wrestlers won in a 21-12 loss.

“We match up well with Indiana,” Cysewski said. “We have to keep wrestling well and with the intensity we had against Penn State. Time is of the essence right now, and we need to start winning the close matches.”

Unlike most Big Ten teams, the Hoosiers don’t boast a lineup crammed with ranked wrestlers.

Indiana has two veteran weapons in No. 4 Viktor Sveda and No. 13 Kevin Stanley – at 184 and 165 pounds, respectively.

After a light nonconference schedule, the Hoosiers offered little resistance to the Big Ten elite: No. 9 Ohio State, No. 7 Illinois and No. 1 Minnesota. Indiana squeaked by Purdue and currently sits in a tie for the eighth spot in the Big Ten.

For NU to come away with two wins, the middleweights will have to be productive.

NU’s thin lineup is strongest in the middle. Cumbee, freshman Josh Ballard and sophomore Jason Erwinski rank first, second and third on the team in wins. While Erwinski is 4-1 in Big Ten play, the two freshmen have not adapted to the tougher competition.

Despite the difficult conference matchups – they have pitted the 141-pound Ballard against No. 2 Eric Juergens of Iowa, and the 149-pound Cumbee against No. 1 Adam Tirapelle of Illinois – Cumbee sees this season as instrumental in his long-term development.

“The biggest thing is experience,” Cumbee said. “Truthfully, I learn a lot when I lose. (Josh and I) have been wrestling well. The Big Ten is the toughest wrestling conference. If we wanted an easy year with conference victories, we would have gone to another school.”

Practice sessions can be intense when Ballard and Cumbee compete against each other, and when Erwinski takes on Cysewski.

With the injuries mounting and the season reaching a climax, Ballard and Cumbee just grit their teeth and aim for their preseason goals – making it to the NCAA championships and being named an All-American.

But before the end of the regular season, the Cats would like to make a mark in the win column, and they’ll most likely do so on the backs of Ballard and Cumbee. Both won in NU’s last victory, against Eastern Illinois.

“We’ve all been hurting as a team,” Cumbee said, “but both of the matches are winnable.”